Sometimes called the ‘little Potala’, Ganden Sumtsenling is within easy reach of Zhongdian and is situated at a little over eleven thousand feet in height.
First we passed through further typical rural landscapes in this area. Note the dzo (a cross between a cow and a yak) and the frames put up to dry the hay,
Thanks to our gradual ascent we didn’t suffer from altitude sickness which, if acute, can lead to death. The last thing anyone should do is to get to Tibet in one day from near sea-level. Of course, AMS can affect some people more than others. Perhaps living in an Italian village already close to two thousand feet in height can help a little.
My first sight of Sumtsenling monastery was quite awesome: the gilded bronze roofs shone in the true blue sky and behind, the pre-Himalayas framed a stunning view. Sumtsenling is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan and also its most important centre of religious excellence.
Dating back to seventeenth century and founded by the great fifth Dalai Lama (credited with the unification of Tibet) Sumtsenling forms part of the yellow hat sect of the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order. (But please don’t mention the present fourteenth Dalai Lama’s name publicly, together with the island of Taiwan if you find yourself in that part of the world…).
Unfortunately, this majestic monastery which once housed two thousand monks, suffered damaged during the now largely discredited cultural revolution of the 1960’s and was actually bombed. It was restored in 1983 and is now home to around seven hundred monks.
It’s free to photograph the exterior of the monastery but one has to pay ten Yuen (a bit over a pound sterling) to take snaps of individual chapels and interior shrines. This can amount to quite a bit, and since no flash can be used, and the interiors can be very dark, there’s little point in paying. Moreover, it seems to me that no photographs can truly capture the extraordinary atmosphere of these monasteries; you just have to go and experience them yourself for, as yet, no virtual reality experience can encapsulate any particle of their arcane ether.
Sumtsenling’s greatest interior treasure is the almost thirty foot tall statue of Shakyamuni, the original Buddha, also known as Gautama or Siddhartha (remember Hesse’s novel?) whose teaching form the basis of Buddhism, and who lived around 500 BC.
Many years ago I was privileged to visit the deer park at Sarnath, India, where the Buddha received Moksha or enlightenment after 49 days of mediation and the age of thirty-five, truly a Dantean ‘Midway the path of life that men pursue’. These photos have been digitised from the colour slides I took there when I was still in my teens.
I always find it strange that in a Hindu-based civilization Buddhism did not immediately take root in India (although Buddha is considered one of the ten avatars, or earthly incarnations, of Vishnu in Hindu belief).
In case you are fully aware of the features of western monasteries but are unsure of what makes up a Tibetan Buddhist one here are its main features. (You can see them all in our photos above). They are arranged, almost campus-like, around an often walled area and are not necessarily interconnected like western ones are:
- An often elaborate entrance portal
- A steep flight of steps up to the main chapel where an image of the Buddha is kept with permanently lit candles made from yak butter in front of it.
- An assembly hall where the monks gather for lessons and the recitation of the scriptures.
- Chapels where idols of different aspects of the Buddha and previous lamas are kept.
- Murals illustrating stories from the scriptures on the inner walls of the chapels.
- A library of manuscripts, many of which are written on palm leaves and stamped with wooden blocks.
- Dormitories for the monks
- Prayer wheels arranged around a Kora (pilgrimage route – always perform it clockwise please!).
- Gardens and agricultural outbuildings.
- A shop selling books and religious items.
It’s a pity that we weren’t in time for the monastery’s biggest festival at the end of November. Called Gedong it’s where religious mask dances are performed, including the Cham which impersonates the battle between forces of good and evil in the form of animals, gods and ghosts. However, we were glad enough to visit this impressive monastery and were glad that its sacred nature and the ancient religious rites of the monks are now being rather more respected than in previous decades.
Our last evening in Shangri-la was spent attending a spectacular show at the local theatre illustrating traditional stories from the area,. It was clearly a touristic honey-pot but the standard of presentation was high.
We should have taken the plane to Lhasa from Diqing Shangri-La airport but no direct flights were available so instead we took a flight to Kunming over increasingly impressive mountain ranges.
Kunming, itself would have been a fascinating place to visit but we were limited to admiring its Changshui airport built by that impressive American architectural partnership Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who have also built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (height 2722 feet). I loved the waving support structure of this airport terminal. Yes, even airport buildings can have their fascination – if you can forget Heathrow, that is!
From Kunming we flew to our main destination in our adventure – Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and one of the highest cities truly placed on the world’s roof. From the aircraft cabin porthole I could see the landscape becoming ever more arid. Truly Tibet is the roof of the world but it is also a rain-shadow area and in large part a kind of high-altitude desert, a sort of moonscape, in fact.
Finally, the Eastern China airlines touched down on the Gonggar airport serving Lhasa and a new phase of our travels began.